I’m going way out on a limb here, and surely many of you may disagree with me, but I feel pretty strongly about this, as a serious consumer and as a serious business person running a startup that connects consumers with local merchants.
Greg Sterling posted an interesting piece on his blog today titled “Opportunity: Online Reputation Management.” I can’t debate the logic here and the basic point that it makes, but I think that the reality of user reviews and how they may or may not influence consumerism is much deeper than indicated. I also think that the user-review value proposition for small, local merchants is not a strong one.
Citysquares.com offers users with the ability to write reviews for local merchants. An interesting example of this is for a new coffee house in Central Square Cambridge, called Andala. It’s probably the best example you’ll get in any urbanized area of the typical small business just getting off the ground. They’re not a Citysquares.com customer (yet). I’ve been there, with my wife, and Chris has been there a few times. I really enjoyed my experience there, and I posted a review. Why? For two reasons: 1, because I truly enjoyed my experience so much, I found the atmosphere, the coffee (I’m a coffee fanatic), and the pastries and so forth very good and it reminded me of my visit to Beirut Lebanon a couple years ago. My wife also really enjoyed it. That experience was, on a scale of 1 to 10, a 9. That’s how strongly I felt about Andala so I posted a review, once I returned home. The second reason is because I want their business and I genuinely want to help them succeed.
Here’s the problem. I am founder and CEO of Citysquares.com, and for better or worse, I only post reviews for local businesses when I feel strongly compelled. I think I’m a typical consumer too – discerning, choosey, but reasonable. I believe that I am like the vast majority of consumers, of all ages.
Ask your friends, ask your family – how many of them add reviews for local businesses? How many of them make a choice to shop at local merchant A vs. local merchant B because of some stranger’s review? I think you’ll find the answer, as we have found, to be not too surprising – that it plays a very insignificant role in local consumerism. But let me stipulate one very significant factors: I’m speaking about local merchants – not products! I’ll get back to that in a moment.
Here’s what I’ve concluded about reviews for local merchants: For the most part, their nice to have, their moderately helpful for a small slice of the consumer market, but by and large, most consumers don’t find reviews of local businesses really all that relevant or meaningful. However, that whole reality gets flipped over on it’s head with one simple difference, and that difference is the almighty dollar. How much cheddar do I plan on spending? That’s the critical factor here.
Whether it’s for a local shoe store, pizza pie, a bar, or for the closest Bank of America, user reviews just don’t carry much weight with the typical, and more importantly, LOCAL consumer.
Now, let’s say I was going to take Ali out for a nice dinner, perhaps within a 30 minute radius of home, somewhere we’ve never been? I plan on dropping a little more loot, having a bottle of wine, in a quiet, romantic atmosphere. Suddenly what other people have to say means more to me. Even still, for me, unless the reviews are dramatically, and powerfully positive or negative, they don’t really impact my decision that much. I can’t think of any situation that user reviews would have a really big impact on my local shopping behavior. Ultimately, I’m looking for X, and I’m looking for it here.
Additionally, part of the fun I have shopping locally is having my own experience – not basing my decision on a stranger’s opinion. Ah, now that opens up a whole new topic doesn’t it – Trust. That’s where this is going? Well, not today.
Back to products. This is interesting because here’s where user reviews take front row – here’s where they take center stage. Product reviews!
Just this weekend I had to find a new boom microphone for my digital camcorder. I didn’t want the stock Canon boom mic, I wanted something else. But I read some reviews on CNET, and sure enough, I made my buying decision.
Take my BlackBerry Pearl for example – a huge jump for me. I went from being a long time and loyal Windows Mobile user to BlackBerry. Before I spent the moolah and made the jump, I wanted to know what others had to say – many many others. I wanted a big sampling of user reviews.
Take my Creative Zen, a new refigerator, humidifier, bicycle, pair of skis, golf club – you name it. I want to know what others have to say – really badly. I bought some new golf clubs this past summer – let me tell you – I probably spent 15 hours or so reading what others had to say about a wide variety of drivers and irons. I’m not exaggerating – just ask Ali, and my brother and father.
Ok, what’s the point here? The point is this: I think user reviews are important for every form of consumerism, whether products, services, local retail, you name it. But ultimately it’s all about the mighty dollar and the impact on me or others around me. How much money I’m going to spend, and how much that decision has an impact on me or others around me. High spend? High impact? Reviews matter. Low spend, low impact, reviews don’t matter.
So if I had a formula it would be:
Total Spend $
—————— = Relevance of user reviews
That looks more impressive than it really is.
Amendment: Greg and I exchanged emails after he read this blog post and he reminded me of an interesting point that I forgot to address, and that is as follows: In our many many conversations with local merchants, be them in sales calls or for other reasons, local merchants are not terribly big fans of user reviews. They don’t want bad reviews written about them. Surely, they also need to understand that they have a job to do – and that’s to please every customer. Yet some customers simply can’t be pleased, and some use the Internet or a user review platform as a sort of anonymous soap box. Ultimately, user reviews will be a big part of local search and online advertising for the foreseeable future, and certainly that is true for Citysquares.com. But we respect the needs of the local merchants, and while we allow user reviews, we do need to take an editorial approach to them sometimes. Take Andala for example. The user jlobel actually used a word that we could not approve. We did not bar his review, we merely edited the word. If a local merchant believes we’re on their side, and trust us to take user reviews and that sort of content seriously, especially if they’re a paid advertiser, than everyone is happy.
Lastly, on Greg’s point about there being an opportunity for online reputation management for local merchant reviews, I totally agree. Whoever figures that out is one clever person!